The opening sequence of Die Another Day is a litmus test for James Bond fans. After surfing into a North Korean military base (presumably after watching Point Break for the tenth time), Bond uses his watch to set off a bomb after an arms deal goes south, then engages in a hovercraft chase. He then gets captured and tortured for 14 months, which is covered in the opening credits with musical accompaniment from Madonna.
It’s a sequence that is both deadly serious in its dialogue scenes and incredibly goofy in the action department, and by the time those first chords of Madonna’s theme song kick in (which goes heavy on that mid-2000s autotune and includes a weird shout-out to Sigmund Freud), fans are usually able to tell that something is rotten in the state of James Bond. Die Another Day is a weird movie, because on the surface it gives you everything you think you want out of the series — gadgets! Action! Judi Dench! — but it came at a time when audience tastes were changing, and the blockbuster landscape along with it.
Die Another Day, released 15 years ago this week, was directed by Lee Tamahori, who went on to direct the terrible James Bond ripoff, xXx: State of the Union. Many have ragged on both films for their shoddy CGI work, not without reason, but the CGI is the least of this movie’s problems. This is a James Bond movie that has no idea what it wants to be. It’s an odd mixture of styles and influences. Does it want to evoke the Roger Moore era of Bond and introduce invisible cars and ice palaces? Or does it want to give the Timothy Dalton style another try, and go after some darker, more real-world subject matter?
Well, it tries to do both, and as one might guess, it fails. The goofy stuff isn’t as fun because of the dark stuff surrounding it, and the dark stuff can’t be taken as seriously because of all the goofy stuff. Pierce Brosnan was a fan-favorite James Bond, but his movies don’t do him any favors. Each of his films got progressively worse, but even the incredibly dumb The World Is Not Enough has its moments (namely that kick-ass theme song from Garbage; as a sidenote, there may be a direct correlation between the quality of a James Bond theme song and the quality of a James Bond movie). Die Another Day, his final outing, represents not only his worst film, but also the worst of the series.
Other fans may have their pick for the series’ worst, but none of those other films introduces Halle Berry as a badass American agent and then completely wastes her as a damsel in distress. And none of those other films led to a reboot of the entire franchise. And none of those other films showed images of James Bond being tortured by scorpions set to an upbeat Madonna dance track (seriously, I can’t get over that).
Die Another Day feels like an archeological artifact, like a holdover action movie from the mid-‘90s that somehow didn’t get released until 2002. You know what other spy movie came out in 2002? The Bourne Identity. It made less money than Die Another Day did, but its influence was much bigger. So much bigger, in fact, that the next James Bond movie took more than a few cues from its more realistic, brutal take on the spy genre. Casino Royale in 2006 was a new direction for the Bond franchise, swapping out Pierce Brosnan with Daniel Craig, going back to James Bond’s beginnings, and taking on the idea that this is James Bond “in the real world.”
And Casino Royale, in this writer’s opinion, is the best James Bond movie. It’s thrilling and it’s visceral and it became instantly iconic upon arrival. But we never would have gotten it if Die Another Day weren’t its own unique brand of bad, much like how Batman and Robin paved the way for Batman Begins. It’s arguable that this is why we get so attached to franchises in the first place, even when they severely let us down: because there’s always the promise of something much better around the corner.
At the end of the day, he’s Bond. James Bond. Sometimes he’s great. And sometimes, he drives around in an invisible car blasting Madonna through the speakers. But seriously, sometimes he’s great, we promise.
Michael Smith dies another day in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.